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The Empire Theatre, 31 to 35 Sauchiehall Street and West Nile St, Glasgow

Formerly - The Choral Hall / The Gaiety Theatre

Glasgow Index

The Glasgow Empire Theatre, designed by Frank Matcham, at corner of West Nile Street and Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, photographed in the 1920s - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Above - The Glasgow Empire Theatre, designed by Frank Matcham, at corner of West Nile Street and Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, photographed in the 1920s - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

 

A Drawing of the Sauchiehall Street facade of the Empire Palace, Glasgow, as planned in 1896 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.In 1895 a new company, Glasgow Empire Palace Co. Ltd, was formed by Moss & Thornton, this time inviting the public to be shareholders in a new theatre for Glasgow taking the place of the Gaiety Theatre which they had leased then bought in Sauchiehall Street.

Variety programme for the Glasgow Empire for Monday the 17th of September 1928.Right - A Drawing of the Sauchiehall Street facade of the Empire Palace, Glasgow, as planned in 1896 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

The share offer was substantially oversubscribed which was always the case for new variety theatres in the Moss Empires consortium, chaired by (Sir) Edward Moss.

Left - A Variety programme for the Glasgow Empire for Monday the 17th of September 1928.

In February 1896 the Gaiety closed and the site bounded by Sauchiehall Street and West Nile Street was cleared; and just over a year later the Empire Palace made its debut, designed by Frank Matcham who was now the preferred architect for Moss. The Theatre reopened as the Empire Palace on Monday the 5th of April 1897.

 

The Glasgow Empire's original Auditorium and Stage  - From 'The Playgoer' 1901 - Courtesy Iain Wotherspoon. It held 2,150 people, including 250 standing, over three levels. The Belfast News Letter summarised the opening event well:- “The Glasgow Empire Palace, costing £30,000, is internally like a huge piece of Dresden china placed in an amber setting of upholstery, and externally it is a massive piece of French Renaissance work. Miss Vesta Tilley opened the building on Monday night.” Tilley topped the bill of 11 turns.

Right - The Glasgow Empire's original Auditorium and Stage - From 'The Playgoer' 1901 - Courtesy Iain Wotherspoon.

The immense building was four storeys high, in ornate French and Italian Renaissance, topped with a central dome and minarets. The main theatre entrance was at 31 Sauchiehall Street with four shops fronting Sauchiehall Street, one being the luxurious Empire Bar at the corner with West Nile Street – under which were large smoking rooms comfortably fitted, and over the bar were large billiard-rooms handsomely decorated. Likewise there were four shops on the West Nile Street front.

Both facades were finished in Dumfriesshire (Locharbriggs) red sandstone, which was now the main building stone used in the city due to white sandstone supplies becoming exhausted. Matcham adopted a very similar style of facade soon after in his next commission for Moss, the (smaller) London Hippodrome – which was also finished in Dumfriesshire red sandstone.

 

Newspapers wrote of the new splendour dedicated to variety entertainment saying:- “The internal furnishing of the theatre is of a most artistic kind, the comfort, not to say luxury, of the audience in the dearer seats being amply cared for. Saloons, lounges and cloakrooms are provided, the rich furnishing being generally in Louis XV style. A handsome marble staircase is one of the features of the theatre, while on the West Nile Street front there is a smoking balcony, which in summer will be decorated with plants. The sliding roof is of an improved type, and at the pay office an automatic arrangement of doors dispenses with the old system of barriers.”

The stage was at the western side, towards Renfield Street. Over the artistes` entry each side of the proscenium were groups of figures representing Music and Dancing.

Glasgow Sauchiehall Street postcard around 1900 viewed from Buchanan Street, with the Empire Palace Theatre middle left, successor to the Gaiety - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Above - Glasgow Sauchiehall Street postcard around 1900 viewed from Buchanan Street, with the Empire Palace Theatre middle left, successor to the Gaiety - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

The Bailie Magazine declared:- “The fact that Mr Moss has so many places under his control gives him additional advantages with regard to artistes, and he is ably associated in the arrangement of the programmes for his various establishments by his indefatigable lieutenant Mr Frank Allen. They can offer a three, four or six months` tour to all the people they engage. Mr Moss does not allow the slightest vulgarity on the stage, and to guard against any lapse, he makes it a condition that every artiste must send a week in advance a copy of his songs and patter to the manager of the theatre.”

The new theatre settled quickly with its high quality variety, comedietta, and Biograph pictures. The Palace orchestra was under the baton of musical director Edward de Banzie, and among many artistes were the Tiller Troupe of eight lady vocalists and dancers, “Mr Harry Lauder - a comedian of more than local interest - scores with the ever-favourite song “Oh! Mr Callagahan”, and “Mr Arthur Lloyd and his party in a musical sketch, which is smartly written and funny.” A continuing favourite was American comedian R. G. Knowles. When the Gaiety and the Scotia worked in conjunction he had a horse and cab waiting outside the Gaiety stage door to drive him at top speed to Stockwell Street, so that he could take the Scotia stage in good time.

In 1899 Moss Empires Ltd was created by amalgamating each Empire company in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Birmingham, Cardiff, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham; London District Empires Ltd, and London Hippodrome.

The Empire Theatre Orchestra, Glasgow, 1915 with musical director Henry Farmer seated centre front - Courtesy of Glasgow University Library.The Empire prospered with performers from both sides of the Atlantic in variety, revues, touring pantomime (often produced by and starring Florrie Forde); and condensed versions of plays, (followed of course by variety). Tickets for the pantomimes put on at Moss`s equally large Coliseum Theatre in Eglinton Street were also sold at the Empire. Moss introduced classical ballet to Britain, and in the 1920s pioneered jazz, usually with performers from the USA.

Left - The Empire Theatre Orchestra, Glasgow, 1915 with musical director Henry Farmer seated centre front - Courtesy of Glasgow University Library.

Henry Farmer (later Dr Farmer) was promoted from the Coliseum Theatre on the south-side to become musical director at the Empire in 1914 and reigned until 1947, possibly the longest term for any musical director at a British theatre. A leading activist in the Musicians` Union he was also founder and chairman of the Scottish Musicians` Home and Orphanage Fund. In 1918 he founded the Glasgow Symphony Orchestra to give public concerts in the parks on Sundays, and also formed Dr Farmer`s Sax Band for the same purpose. He became an expert, and author, on Oriental music, Arabic music, the development of military bands in Britain, and the history of music in Scotland. More about Henry Farmer can be seen on Glasgow University`s webpage here. And more about the Henry Farmer Scrapbook and his extensive archives can be seen on the Glasgow University Library Special Collections site here.

 

The Empire Theatre, Glasgow, in Sauchiehall Street about 1930, looking eastwards - Courtesy Graeme Smith.In the late 1920s after talkies had started, Moss Empires reappraised their business priorities. Smaller venues were disposed and larger venues in major cities would be substantially rebuilt to compete with the new super-cinemas which competitors were planning.

Right - The Empire Theatre, Glasgow, in Sauchiehall Street about 1930, looking eastwards - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Each of the super-theatres would also have state of the art cinema equipment. The Gaumont corporation of France was circling and, through Gaumont-British, was buying venues and sites; by 1932 it would have a controlling shareholding in Moss Empires.

The favoured architects of Moss were now W & T. R. Milburn of Sunderland, (whose first work for Moss & Thornton was in the 1890s), and who had become the premier theatre/cinema architect firm in the north of England. One of the rebuilds was the Edinburgh Empire, known today as the Festival Theatre, and Glasgow`s turn came in 1930 when the Empire shut, to be completely rebuilt and reopened on 28th September 1931.

 

The New Empire Theatre, 1931

American Comedian R. G. Knowles, always popular in Glasgow - Courtesy Graeme Smith.The theatre was extended westwards towards Renfield Street and its geography was totally changed; the new auditorium was facing 180 degrees the other way, with the stage now at the eastern end at West Nile Street.

The theatre entrance was now very democratic, with all patrons entering the one door, with its marble-tiled hall and booking offices, the address now being 35 Sauchiehall Street. New cinemas had only one entrance door, so likewise the new Moss theatres.

The theatre was now very spacious, with tip-up chairs throughout and generous maximum legroom. The Stalls accommodated 1,000 people and two boxes; the Dress Circle held 600, and the Upper Circle 400.

There were now 20 dressing rooms across four floors, including four star suites. There were three lifts from basement to roof for equipment, performers and staff.

Right - American Comedian R. G. Knowles, always popular in Glasgow - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

 

The Auditorium of the Empire Glasgow as reconstructed in 1931 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Above - The Auditorium of the Empire Glasgow as reconstructed in 1931 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

While its interior decor was plush moderne, with art deco lighting, and quality wood panels in hallways, the exterior had been brutalised with all the minarets and dome removed; the renaissance features were shorn from the facade and the roof balustrades bricked up.

TThe Circle Lounge in the Empire Theatre, Glasgow in 1931 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.he celebratory booklet describes the auditorium styling:- “...the motive of the colour scheme is scrumbled ivory, with sub-themes of plum and silver. The drapes and upholstery generally are in Rose du Barry with silver satin appliqué work. The auditorium is greatly enlarged, with a dado of cork panelling running right round. This is part of a special scheme to provide perfect acoustics in our New Empire. The roof of the theatre, and the walls, have been lined with a special material which aids sound-reproduction.

“Downstairs from the entrance is a large lounge and refreshment rooms, for the Stalls, and theatre staff rooms. Two stairways from the Entrance Hall lead to the Dress Circle. Another flight reaches the Upper Circle. Each level has a lounge and refreshment rooms.”

Right - The Circle Lounge in the Empire Theatre, Glasgow in 1931 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Moss Empires supervisor Mr Harry Benn will ensure that full advantage is taken of the magnificent stage equipment and settings, so necessary for the new variety – high speed turns with no waits. Last but by no means least there is Captain Bernard A Leslie, who will manage the New Empire.” He had worked with CB Cochran and with Archie Pitt in revues and variety.

 

The Auditorium of the Empire Glasgow as reconstructed in 1931 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Above - The Auditorium of the Empire Glasgow as reconstructed in 1931 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

 

Comedian and National Jester Tommy Lorne - Courtesy Graeme Smith.The opening week was headed by Jack Payne & his BBC Dance Band, with turns including Billy Bennet, and ventriloquist A. C. Astor. The following week was Tommy Lorne in his revue “Happiness for Sale.” In addition to variety, revues, band weeks, summer revues and winter revels the Empire hosted the numerous, lavish ice shows pioneered in Britain by Tom Arnold. Pantomimes were introduced led by Tommy Morgan and others, and circus shows also proved successful.

Right - Comedian and National Jester Tommy Lorne - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Fats Waller makes his European debut on 1st August 1938 at the Empire Theatre Glasgow - Courtesy Graeme Smith.In the dancing decades of the city`s ballrooms and dance halls, jazz orchestras and dance bands rolled into the Empire. From the 1920s onwards ballrooms introduced after-theatre dancing, including the Waldorf further along Sauchiehall Street managed by Leslie MacDonnell who would become managing director of Moss Empires.

Jazz performers came from over the pond including Duke Ellington & his Jazz Orchestra in 1933, returning often. The scintillating Fats Waller made his European debut at the Empire on 1st August 1938, packing the houses, ably assisted by his band and joined by lady vocalist Adelaide Hall.

Left - Fats Waller makes his European debut on 1st August 1938 at the Empire Theatre Glasgow - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

An advertisement in 1928 for after-theatre dancing at the Waldorf Ballroom, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow - Courtesy Graeme Smith.Waller's arrival is recorded in his biography after his early death thus:- “When Fats Waller, his wife Anita, and manager Ed Zirkeby strolled down the gangway of the Transylvania at Greenock one July afternoon in 1938, they were greeted by some very familiar sounds. Billy Mason`s Empire Orchestra, with Duncan Whyte blowing plenty of Armstrong phrases on his trumpet, welcomed the American visitors by playing Waller`s best-known tune, Honeysuckle Rose. The following Monday night, at the Glasgow Empire, the reception was even more overwhelming. It was, Fats assured the jubilant audience, the greatest reception he had ever had in his life. He responded to it by sitting down again at the piano, with a plaid beret perched on top of his head, and playing Loch Lomond dead straight. Only when a man high up in the gallery shouted “Hey Fats, swing it” did the pianist unbend and start twisting the melody to his own ends.”

Right - An advertisement in 1928 for after-theatre dancing at the Waldorf Ballroom, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Of a home grown band one journalist happily recalls:- “A sizable chunk of Ambrose`s band including George Chisholm (and other Glasgow giants of jazz including Tommy McQuater and Andy McDevitt) and leader and vocalist Aberdonian Jimmy Miller, joined the RAF at the start of the Second World War, to become the famous RAF dance orchestra The Squadronaires. The men represented the cream of their profession at the time.

 

The Squadronaires on stage with George Chisholm left, and leader Jimmy Miller centre - Courtesy the Chisholm family and Bob Sinfield.A 1940s Variety Programme for the Glasgow Empire Theatre.No civilian band leader could have afforded the salaries their talents deserved, yet the RAF enjoyed their services for a mere five shillings a day.

Left - The Squadronaires on stage with George Chisholm left, and leader Jimmy Miller centre - Courtesy the Chisholm family and Bob Sinfield.

They set out to entertain both services` and civilian audiences all over the country. When The Squadronaires were due leave, they used to spend it "doubling" the Glasgow Empire and Green`s Playhouse Ballroom. It was quite a sight to see them in RAF uniforms, instruments in hand, emerging from the Empire stage door in West Nile street between houses to dash up to Green`s to play for the dancers.”

George Chisholm`s short and hilarious biography – Gentleman of Jazz - can be enjoyed here.

Right - A 1940s Variety Programme for the Glasgow Empire Theatre. For another image of an original Empire Palace Theatre programme click here.

 

A programme for the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Glasgow Empire in 1940 - Courtesy Robert Pool.

Above - A programme for the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Glasgow Empire in 1940 - Courtesy Robert Pool.

A programme for the Danny Kaye Show in 1949 - Courtesy Robert Pool.A Programme cover for the Crackerjack Show in 1948 - Courtesy Robert Pool.A Programme for Madame Koringa with her reptiles and crocodiles which appeared in the Glasgow Empire circus shows in the 1940s presented by Tom Arnold - Courtesy Graeme Smith. Scottish entertainers were consistently the most lucrative to the Empire, and after 1945 were increasingly joined by international headliners such as Judy Garland, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Gracie Fields, Danny Kaye (who was a huge success), Roy Rogers & Trigger, Frank Sinatra (who was largely ignored), Burl Ives, Frankie Laine, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Connie Francis, Dickie Valentine, Eartha Kitt, and more. David Whitfield was exceptionally popular in his musicals. And Frankie Vaughan made himself at home.

Above - A Programme for Madame Koringa with her reptiles and crocodiles which appeared in the Glasgow Empire circus shows in the 1940s presented by Tom Arnold - Courtesy Graeme Smith. A Programme for the Crackerjack Show in 1948 - Courtesy Robert Pool. And a Programme for the Danny Kaye Show in 1949 - Courtesy Robert Pool.

 

The auditorium of the Glasgow Empire - From the Moss Empires Jubilee Brochure of 1949

Above - The auditorium of the Glasgow Empire - From the Moss Empires Jubilee Brochure of 1949.

A 1955 Playbill headed by Ella Logan - Courtesy Graeme Smith.A Glasgow Empire Programme for the pantomime Old King Cole in 1954 - Courtesy Robert Pool. A Glasgow Empire Playbill headed by Billy Daniels in 1952 - Courtesy Graeme Smith. When Howard & Wyndham Ltd bought over the Alhambra Theatre in the 1950s the pantomime stars of Tom Arnold pantomimes, normally at the Alhambra, switched to his comedy spectaculars at the Empire – starring Duncan Macrae, Jack Anthony, Robert Wilson, and joined by Chic Murray & Maidie, and Denny Willis.

Right - A Glasgow Empire Playbill headed by Billy Daniels in 1952 - Courtesy Graeme Smith. Middle - A Glasgow Empire Programme for the pantomime Old King Cole in 1954 - Courtesy Robert Pool. Far Right - A 1955 Playbill headed by Ella Logan - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

 

A 1959 Playbill for the Glasgow Empire Headed by Paul Anka - Courtesy Graeme Smith.In December 1961 a sophisticated Aladdin was staged, produced by Harold Fielding, with music by Cole Porter and the book written by John Law, author of the 'Wish for Jamie' pantomimes playing at the Alhambra. The following year Fielding produced Rodgers & Hammerstein`s musical Cinderella.

Left - A 1959 Playbill for the Glasgow Empire Headed by Paul Anka - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

A Glasgow Empire Andy Stewart Show programme cover 1961 - Courtesy Stephen Harris.By the 1960s television was changing habits and the directors of Moss Empires Ltd had invested in television companies and production, while property developers closely associated themselves with some directors with an eye to many city centre sites becoming available. Moss chairman Prince Littler was also chairman of Howard & Wyndham Ltd and it was publicly announced by Howard & Wyndham that they had agreed to takeover Moss Empires Ltd. However Howard & Wyndham rescinded their decision a week later. Prince Littler resigned.

Right - A Glasgow Empire Andy Stewart Show programme cover 1961 - Courtesy Stephen Harris.

In what would be the last few years, managing director Leslie MacDonnell found he had struck gold when Glasgow`s Andy Stewart, newly graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama and star on television in the White Heather Club with Robert Wilson, Joe Gordon, Isobel James and others, agreed to have his own show at the Empire, for a trial one week in October 1960. All the houses sold out. Andy Stewart signed a three year contract with Moss Empires.

 

A Glasgow Empire Andy Stewart Show Programme from 1962 - Courtesy Robert Pool.

Above - A Glasgow Empire Andy Stewart Show Programme from 1962 - Courtesy Robert Pool.

In 1961 the first 26-week Andy Stewart Show opened in April, twice nightly, and was completely pre-sold. The programme changed every six weeks (as now did Alhambra`s Five Past Eight Show) and 400,000 tickets were sold. Likewise the following year in April 1962 for another 26 weeks, sealing his record of the longest running shows in the Empire`s history.

More about Andy Stewart and his seasons at the Empire can be seen on the excellent Andy Stewart Story website here.

In March 1963 the last two weeks of the theatre headlined the Red Army Choir to great acclaim and full houses. (See photo Below).

 

The Empire Theatre, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow looking east in March 1963, advertising the Red Army Choir - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

Above - The Empire Theatre, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow looking east in March 1963, advertising the Red Army Choir - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

 

The Programme Cover for the Glasgow Empire Theatre's Farewell Variety Show on the 31st of March 1963 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.The Red Army Choir were also special guest performers in the Grand Charity Farewell Variety Show on Sunday 31st March 1963, devised and directed by Johnny Beattie and Rikki Fulton.

Right - The Programme Cover for the Glasgow Empire Theatre's Farewell Variety Show on the 31st of March 1963 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.

The show was entitled 'Show of Shows 1963' and included the following acts and artistes:

DANGER! MEN AT WORK with Albert Finney, John Mulvaney, and Duncan Macrae. STRICTLY IN ACCORD with Bobby McLeod and Will Starr. AH'M NEXT with Jimmy Neil. JUMPING FOR JOY with The May Moxon Young Ladies. WITH A SONG IN MY HEART with Fay Lenore. DOWN MEMORY LANE with Jack Radcliffe and Robert Wilson. PLAYING IT COOL with The Kool Katz. THE WHITE HEATHER CLUB with Andy Stewart, Dixie Ingram, Ian Powrie and his band, and The White Heather Girls.

Fifteen Minute Interval with Grand Prize Draw

THE GOOD OLD DAYS - Our Chairman lain Cuthbertson introduces The May Moxon Young Ladies, Jimmy Reid, Billy Wyner, Pete Martin, and "Master Joe Petersen". CIRCUS DAZE with Charlie Cairoli and Company. THE VOICE OF THE HIGHLANDS with Calum Kennedy. VERY COMMON MARKET with Johnny Beattie and Eric V. Marsh. AND ALL THAT JAZZ with George Penman and his Jazzmen. DANCING TIME with The Jim Grahame Formation Dance Team, presented by Jim Grahame, introducing The World Professional Ballroom Champions Harry Smith-Hampshire and Doreen Casey. THE REEL THING with The Alexander Brothers. FRANCIE and JOSIE alias Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy. THE PIPES AND DRUMS with The 279 (City of Glasgow and Ayrshire) Regt. R.A. (T.A.). AULD LANG SYNE. THE QUEEN.


A Google StreetView Image of Empire House which stands on the site of the former Empire Theatre, Glasgow - Click to Interact.Soon there was no theatre on Sauchiehall Street, after almost 90 years, starting with the Gaiety and then the Empire, the end had come.

The theatre's replacement emerged and continues today as Empire House, with retail shops facing Sauchiehall Street and offices entered from West Nile Street.

Right - A Google StreetView Image of Empire House which stands on the site of the former Empire Theatre, Glasgow - Click to Interact.

For more information and images of the Glasgow Empire Theatre you may like to visit Bob Bain's website here.

The above article on the Empire Theatre, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, was written by Graeme Smith and kindly sent in for inclusion on the site in 2014.

 

You may find the following pages from this site of interest: